How the President Is Elected
Presidents are elected or re-elected every four years. The major parties nominate their candidates for president, and those names are submitted to the chief election official in each state. These are the candidates whose names will appear on the general election ballot.
On the Tuesday following the first Monday in November, eligible people vote for the president. The candidate who wins the popular vote in a state wins all the votes of that state's electors. (Electors belong to the body known as the Electoral College, described in the following section.) Maine and Nebraska do not subscribe to the winner- take-all method. In these two states, the states are divided into a number of districts. Each district gets one statewide electoral vote.
The state's electors meet in their respective states to cast their electoral votes on the Monday following the second Wednesday of December. Electors get two votes, one for president and one for vice president. Each elector must cast one of his or her two votes for a candidate outside of the state. This rule ensures that a president and vice president cannot hail from the same state, thus unduly concentrating the influence of the executive branch in one state.
Why do presidential candidates usually choose running mates from other parts of the country?
To increase the likelihood that their party will receive the popular vote. For example, John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts chose Texan Lyndon B. Johnson for his running mate. This isn't always the case, of course. In 1992, Arkansan Bill Clinton chose Al Gore, a senator from neighboring Tennessee, as his running mate.
The electoral votes are sealed and sent to the president of the Senate, and on January 6 the results are read aloud to both houses of Congress. The American voters already know the outcome, since forty-eight of the nation's fifty states grant all of their electoral votes to the popular vote-winning candidate. If no single candidate receives a majority of electoral votes, the House of Representatives votes to choose the winner from among the top three candidates. Then, on January 20, the president and vice president are sworn into office.
The History of the Electoral College
There are several theories to explain the reasons the Founding Fathers may have implemented the electoral system. As a secondary voting body, it is possible that the Electoral College was designed to help balance the interest of different states, especially in cases where candidates from two states had split the vote. It is important to remember that when the Constitution was drafted, the current two-party system had not yet come into existence. With multiple parties, there is no longer any need for an electoral college to balance the interests or votes of the different states.
Even with a two-party system, the electoral college continues to serve one important purpose. It prevents states with concentrated populations from automatically overriding the votes and the interests of less populated states. Each state is permitted the same number of electors as it has representatives in Congress (senators and congress-people). States with larger populations do have a greater number of electors, but less populated states can combine their electoral votes and contribute to the outcome of an election.
Changes to the Electoral System
Because there were no political parties when the Constitution was drafted and the United States came into being, the electoral system as originally conceived did not take the effects of political party differences into account. Electors were each given two votes, only one of which they were permitted to cast for candidates of their own state. There was no distinction between a vote for president or vice president. The candidate who won the most votes was elected president, and the runner-up was elected vice president. If the candidate with the most votes did not also win the majority, the vote went to the House of Representatives, with each state getting a single vote. The vice presidential candidate was not required to win a majority.
This system became a problem almost immediately, when different political theories divided elected officials along party lines. Federalists believed that the country's power should be consolidated into a central (“federal”) government, with state power being subordinate to the interests of the federation. Members of the Democratic Republican party believed that primary power should reside with the individual states. In 1796, the Federalist John Adams was elected president. His runner-up was Thomas Jefferson, who belonged to the Democratic-Republican Party.
Things got worse in the subsequent presidential election, in which Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr both ran as Republicans. There was no way for electors to distinguish their votes for president and vice president, and as a result of some tricky political maneuvering, neither candidate won a majority of votes. As a result, the vote for president went to the House of Representatives. The House voted thirty-five times, finally only breaking the tie and electing Jefferson after more tricky politics. (This long contest sparked the feud already smoldering between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton and ended with their duel, in which Burr killed Hamilton.)
The Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution was drawn up to keep such a tie from recurring. Henceforth, each elector cast only one vote for president and one for vice president. In the event that no one receives an absolute majority of electoral votes, the House of Representatives votes to decide among the three top candidates.
After the famous presidential election of 1800 and the drafting of the Twelfth Amendment, the House of Representatives has voted to elect the president only once. This happened in 1824, when four Republicans — John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, and William Harris Crawford — split the electoral vote, with none of the candidates receiving a majority. Crawford received the fewest electoral votes and was thus dropped from contention when the vote went to the House, where John Quincy Adams was ultimately elected president.
Pros and Cons
The Electoral College has been controversial since it was created. But it does have some positive points, including these:
The Electoral College ensures nationwide popular support of presidential candidates.
Minority groups wield power thanks to the Electoral College. Small minorities within states may shift the balance of the electoral votes in favor of one candidate over another.
The Electoral College promotes political stability because it promotes a two-party system. Third-party candidates rarely achieve national prominence, which compromises their ability to win electoral votes. As a result, the country's two dominant parties are forced to absorb interests espoused by third-party candidates.
But the electoral system has its share of negatives as well, including these:
If the country were to become extremely politically divided, it could cause three or more presidential candidates to split the electoral vote. As a result, a third-party candidate could be elected.
Electors have the potential to vote against their party's candidate, possibly invalidating the will of the state's voters.
The Electoral College may be a factor in low voter turnout. Since each state only gets a certain number of electoral votes, regardless of voter turnout, individual voters have little impact on the outcome.
For some, the Electoral College smacks of an oligarchy — a form of government in which a limited number of people have the power to elect a nation's leaders.
One of the most serious complaints about the Electoral College comes from folks who believe that it prevents America from truly being a democracy because it can cause the candidate who wins the most popular votes to lose the election. This happened in 2000, during the race between Al Gore and George W. Bush.